RUBY Walsh was in Carlow town on Tuesday 16 April. It was a desperately sad occasion as he had come to pay his respects to the late Dr Brendan Doyle who had passed away three days earlier.
Standing at the entrance to the cemetery as he waited for the hearse to arrive, if you didn’t know him you wouldn’t have taken the jockey to be one of the greatest sportsmen Ireland has ever produced. He was just another mourner at a funeral in an Irish town.
When Ruby announced his retirement last Tuesday he saw fit to pay tribute to the late Brendan while the ghost of the outgoing treasurer and former chairman of the Association of Irish Racehorse Owners (AIRO) must have accompanied Willie Mullins and his entire yard as the National Hunt season came to a successful conclusion for the Closutton yard in Punchestown.
Who knows what kind of doctor-patient relationship Ruby and Brendan had, but it wouldn’t be a major surprise if the Carlow doctor had helped Ruby come to the decision which he did. The jockey was out of racing for six months earlier in the year. Broken legs, cracked vertebrae, a ruptured spleen and many other injuries through an illustrious career never broke the jockey’s drive to ride winners on racetracks in Britain, Ireland and further afield.
Yet every time he got onto a horse Ruby was playing with the odds of picking up yet another serious injury. After all that he had done, did he really need to prove anything to himself or anybody else?
Yet there was a little bit more to the champion jockey than his ability to ride winners.
Other Irish jockeys – like Richard Dunwoody with 1874 winners and Tony McCoy on 4358 – had almost an insane desire to ride winners. They could travel hundreds of miles for one ride while in Mick Fitzgerald’s autobiography ‘Better than Sex’, the author suggests top jockeys like Dunwoody would contact trainers and owners to try and get on horses which would have possibly gone to other riders, like Fitzgerald himself.
Yet when Patrick Mullins, with 73 winners, broke the record for the most amateur rides in a season in 2012 and then went on to break the amateur career record of 545 winners last year, he readily admitted Ruby would have stood down from particular horses to give Patrick the opportunity to create his piece of history.
Particularly so in 2012 when time was running out and the year was drawing to a close. In the separate race to ride the most career winners as an amateur, it was, ironically, Ted Walsh, Ruby’s father, who had held the record Patrick was about to beat. What a gesture by Ruby who obviously sees the bigger picture. Class.
Then this year Paul Townend may have won the jockey’s championship but again the champion-in-waiting pointed out Walsh did all he could to ensure the title went to the Cork man when allowing Willie Mullins’ number two jockey have his pick on what would be considered the best horse in a race. More class.
So while it was a shock when Ruby announced his retirement after riding Kemboy to win at Punchestown, there was also a sense of relief. The jockey was doing it his way, in his own time and he wasn’t forced to retire because of injury as Mick Fitzgerald had to.
In August 2008 the Wexford-born jockey called it a day after falling off L’Ami in the Grand National some months previously. Now Walsh, after being associated with so many equine superstars from Alexander Banquet, Papillon, Kauto Star, Master Minded, Big Bucks, Hurricane Fly, Annie Power, Quevega, Un De Sceaux and finally Kemboy, the jockey walked out with his arms swinging.
On Friday he did an interview over the phone with Sean O’Rourke on RTE radio. It was not from a studio or a hospital bed, but from outside a shop on a street in Kilcullen with his youngest child beside him. An extraordinary sportsman, but at that moment an ordinary man carrying out his parental duties not far from his house.
The Punchestown press release revealed Walsh made his decision last year and would probably have retired if Rathvinden had won the Grand National. He could still have gone when Burrow’s Saint won the Irish Grand National but he waited for Punchestown.
“I always said I would go out on a winner. I had talked to Gillian (Ruby’s wife) about it for a while and there comes a time that you want to do something else and I have been a jump jockey for 24 years, I am nearly 40 and I want to do something different for the next 24 or 25 years,” he said in a statement.
Hopefully Walsh will not be lost to the racing game. In one particular area it would be disappointing if he doesn’t go down the road which his father has gone as a pundit and a racing analyst with RTE.
The national station has been hurt by the mega broadcasters but if there is one thing they do well, it’s sports punditry and television analysis. They can offer, without dispute, a hundred times more than the inane offerings of other channels. Ruby has already been down the punditry road. He will get many offers to appear on television.
Finally, Willie Mullins said he never sensed the day (Ruby’s retirement) coming.
“He had a great career with Paul (Nicholls), a great career with me and just what a career. In terms of riding and horses, we were totally in sync and I don’t think that we ever had a cross word. It’s going to be strange without him.”
Somehow or another while Ruby might have retired as a jockey it is unlikely that we have seen the last of him. That can only be good for Irish sport.